About Us 

From its inception, the movement to shape Rikers’ future has always demanded public recognition of its past.  From the start of the #CLOSErikers campaign, Freedom Agenda, Create Forward, and the Humanities Action Lab (HAL), through its States of Incarceration project, strategically partnered to use history and memory to propel the movement forward. Now that Mayor de Blasio, an independent commission, and a growing number of New Yorkers have called for Rikers Island to be closed, Freedom Agenda, Create Forward, and HAL are exploring ways to ensure that Rikers is not forgotten and its memory is shaped by those who were detained there, their families, and their communities.

The Rikers Public Memory Project: A Community Truth and Healing Process emerged from those conversations. This project is a community-based, participatory initiative through which our collective stories about the impact of Rikers are activated to envision a more just NYC. The project is an outgrowth of an ongoing partnership between JustLeadershipUSA, Create Forward, and the Humanities Action Lab, who, together, sought to think through the ways that the process of collectively remembering can be used as a strategic organizing tool in the movement to close Rikers Island.

Making the closure of Rikers a reality and ensuring that its essential problems are never repeated, in New York City or elsewhere, requires powerful acts of imagination that illuminate the realities of the past and present while creating a more equitable vision for the future.

The Rikers Public Memory Project will use storytelling, art-making, and oral histories to document and make visible the impact of Rikers Island by asking:

What should we remember about Rikers?

How should we remember Rikers?

Why should we remember Rikers?

While the immediate aim of the Rikers Public Memory project is to support the important campaign to close Rikers Island, this is just the beginning of an ongoing and dynamic process that uses public memory in pursuit of reparative justice for the communities that bear the mounting cost of mass incarceration.

104 Stories

The lack of documented history on Rikers Island is both a challenge and an opportunity. On the one hand, it highlights the possibility that the horrors of Rikers will not remain in our collective memory, and great risk that those injustices will repeated and relived. On the other hand, it gives us the chance to make sure that those who are most impacted by Rikers can reclaim that history for themselves.

For this reason, the Rikers Public Memory Project has begun conducting audio interviews and collecting oral histories of those who have been detained at Rikers, their families, and those who work there.

These stories will be catalogued as a part of the permanent collections of the New York Public Library. We regularly host story collection days in locations around the city. If you are interested in telling your story or serving as a volunteer interviewer make sure to express your interest when you sign up to receive our newsletter.


All Past Events

History of Rikers

While there is a lot that we do know about the history of Rikers, as illustrated by this timeline, there is so much more that we don’t know. For this reason, the Rikers Public Memory Project hopes to complete the history presented here with the voices of those most impacted by developing an oral history in support of the movement.

To find out how you can contribute to reclaiming this history as an interviewee or volunteer interviewer, sign up to receive our newsletter.

On August 4th, 2014, the Department of Justice issued a scathing report concluding that the Rikers Island Correctional Center was defined by a “deep-seated culture of violence”. During its eight decades as New York City’s primary county jail, Rikers has been characterized by corruption, poor conditions, inadequate services, overcrowding and violence–yet the island’s dark history stretches back far further, to the pro-slavery family who purchased it in the 1600s.

In 1664, a prominent Dutch immigrant, Abraham Rycken, purchased an 87-acre island located in the East River. [1][2] In time, the family name was Anglicized to “Riker”, and the island that they owned soon became known as Rikers Island.[3] Rikers remained under family control until it was purchased by the City of New York in 1884 for $180,000.[4] [5]

New York State did not outlaw slavery until 1827, and NYC’s prominence as a port city linked the commercial class to the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The Riker family is inextricably tied to New York City’s legacy of slavery, particularly through Abraham Rycken’s most notorious descendent, Richard Riker.[6] Intermittently between 1815 and 1838, Mr. Riker served as the recorder of New York City, a bygone seat of office charged with the oversight of the city’s criminal courts.[7]

According to Pulitzer Prize-winning Columbia University history professor, Eric Foner, Richard Riker used his wealth and political influence to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act in New York City.[8] After Congress passed the first Fugitive Slave Act in 1793, Northern states attempted to counteract the legislation by enacting state laws to dictate the judicial process by which alleged ‘fugitive slaves’ could prove their free status.[9] In 1828New York passed its own anti-Fugitive Slave Act legislation, which provided alleged fugitives the right to a trial by jury. [10][11] [12] A vocal proponent of the federal Fugitive Slave Act, Riker repeatedly denied accused fugitives their right to a trial, thereby stripping them of their judicial rights.[13] According to the Emancipator, a historical abolitionist newspaper, Richard Riker led a cohort of officials who actively conspired to both send and sell free blacks, accused of being fugitives, to the South without due process.[14] In a series of essays, the Emancipator tracked the activities of Riker’s group, which came to be known as the ‘Kidnapping Club’.[15] One essay published in 1837 tells of how Riker denied alleged fugitive, Alfred Canada, his right to a lawyer and the opportunity to introduce witnesses.[16]With his judicial process fundamentally obstructed, Canada was deemed a fugitive and sent to the South as a slave.[17] The Emancipator also detailed the tribulations of seven-year-old Henry Schoot who was dragged out of his elementary school by a Virginia slave-owner, Richard Haxall.[18] While Haxall claimed that Schoot was the property of his late father and that ownership had passed to his mother, Haxall failed to produce a will.[19]  Nevertheless, Riker believed the man’s word and jailed the seven-year-old boy.[20]

In 1862, two decades after Richard Riker’s death, the Riker family loaned their island to the Union Army for use as an army base. [21] Within two years, a prisoner of war camp was established at the base, representing the first detention facility ever constructed on the island.[22] [23]

That same year, the Union League Club of New York launched an investigation into the conditions of the army base on Rikers.[24] The pro-Lincoln group discovered that the 26th U.S. Colored Troops lived in conditions far worse than those of their white counterparts: their quarters cramped, dilapidated, and freezing.[25] According to the group’s report, “disease began to appear to an alarming extent, while there was no proper hospital in which to treat it.”[26] In response, the Union League Club attempted to improve conditions of the quarters, providing black soldiers with small stoves, and building a hospital on the island.[27]

In the 1880s, the New York City Commissioners of Charities and Correction proposed that the City transfer its primary jail complex from Blackwell’s Island (present-day Roosevelt Island) up the East River to Rikers Island, setting in motion a transformation of the island that would take five decades to complete.[28] [29] At the time of the Commissioners’ proposal, Rikers Island measured eighty-seven acres in size. More than half of this land mass was less than three feet above sea level.[30] Beginning in the 1880s, prison labor was used to pull up shoals from the marshes in the East River in order to expand and elevate the island.[31] These laborers used metal, refuse, cinders, street sweepings, horse manure, and dirt—landfill– from the Lexington Avenue subway excavation in order to enlarge the island. [32][33]

The dumping of undesirable debris did not go unnoticed.[34] In 1926, the New York Times reported that, “from the shores of Queens and the Bronx, the smoking island looks like a volcano preparing for eruption.”[35] In the same vein, Parks Commissioner Robert Moses stated that the dumping policy was “stupid, costly, and barbaric” to the point that “no public official [could] survive it.”[36] As a result, in 1927, the State Commission of Corrections urged the city to find a different location for the new jail.[37] Ignoring Albany’s request, the City unilaterally plowed ahead with the environmentally unsound expansion process.[38] This expansion continued despite a 1934 suspension of payments to the jail’s architect and contractors for constructing the jail so poorly that it was already leaking and showing signs of architectural decay.[39] Nevertheless, by 1939, the completed Rikers Island constituted 420 acres.[40]

Today, the heap of decomposing landfill that comprises Rikers Island emits toxic methane gas, exacerbating a litany of air quality issues at Rikers. Documentation demonstrates that Rikers air contains high levels of dangerous pollutants, such as particulate matter, which affects the heart and lungs and can have serious human health impacts.[41]

Why would NYC invest decades’ worth of resources in order to transfer the jail complex a few miles up the East River onto a more environmentally hazardous plot of land? The answer is two-pronged. First, Blackwell’s Island was known for having a corrupt administration and overcrowded facilities.[42][43] In 1935, news outlets reported that gangs were running the facilities, a revelation that catalyzed the jail’s closure.[44] The jail’s overcrowding was also scandalous; the 700 cells at BIP held up to 1100 detainees at any given time, earning Blackwell’s the reputation as “the Alcatraz of the East.”[45] [46] This lack of space also prevented the city from instituting rehabilitative jail services. In 1928, Commissioner of Correction Richard C. Patterson Jr. said that unlike Blackwell’s, the new jail on Rikers Island would allow detainees to reenter society as “better citizens, with clear eyes, hard muscles and better mental and moral health.”[47] The LaGuardia administration hoped that the new facilities on Rikers Island would provide the necessary space to establish vocational training programs at the City’s main jail complex.[48]

Secondly, the city sought to bifurcate the populations that then resided at Blackwell’s Island, physically separating those seen as “deserving” of charitable assistance and those who ‘deserved’ punishment.[49] Blackwell’s Island housed New Yorkers who had physical or mental health issues, as well as those who were justice involved in order to seclude those in need of rehabilitation on a peaceful island detached from New York’s bustling mainland. [50] [51] In 1893, Mayor Thomas Gilroy publically declared:

It has long been a reproach to this city that the sick and unfortunate who are legitimate objects of charity are sent to Blackwell’s Island, which is generally associated in the public mind with a penal institution.[52]

According to the New York Times, Gilroy’s report was representative of a broader sentiment at the time.[53] In 1886, the Times reported that New Yorkers “long cherished a desire to draw a very distinct line of demarcation by territorial restrictions between the institutions for relief of the distressed and those for punishment of the guilty.”[54]In moving from one island jail to another, New Yorkers could continue to keep certain segments of society out of sight and out of mind.[55] In 1932, the City thus transferred those who were being incarcerated at Blackwell’s Island to Rikers.

While the transfer to Rikers Island was conceived of in part to implement reforms, it soon became apparent that corruption and overcrowding had found their way to Rikers. The first signs of trouble emerged in 1936, just a year after the drawn-out transfer process was completed.[56] In 1938, the Executive Committee of the Prison Association of New York found Rikers’ conditions to be deplorable, highlighting the foul odors generated by the decomposition of the Island’s landfill foundation.[57] According to the Committee, the stench of waste decay on Rikers “constitute[d] cruel and inhuman treatment of [the] 25,000 [detainees] who pass through the penitentiary gates annually.”[58]

Several years later, a 1939 Federal Writers’ Project report concluded that the jail’s administration was in need of reform.[59] According to the report, the rapid rates of detainee turnover rendered the administration unable to effectively monitor and control the population.[60] While the jail had a total capacity of 2,550– over 25,000 individuals cycled through Rikers Island on an annual basis, each individual stay averaging under 10 days.[61]Remarkably, the average length of stay for a Rikers detainee has barely fluctuated in the eight decades since. That same year, when 23 jurors inspected Rikers, they criticized the “cramped quarters, insanitary buildings, and inadequate facilities.”[62] The Bronx court concluded that the jail’s administration was cause for concern, citing widespread corruption amongst the correction officers.[63] The resulting reform focused on building more facilities, and hiring more officers. This did little to alleviate the pressures of overcrowding or improve the broader conditions of the facilities. [64]

As Rikers lurched from one failed reform to another, Anna Kross emerged as a rare champion of justice. Kross, a young and ambitious Russian immigrant, was studying law at New York University when she first began volunteering at jails and prisons. Years later, Kross was appointed judge to the city magistrate court, the first woman in history to hold such position. In 1946, she devised an experimental social court in order to better guide troubled families through the criminal justice system. During this time, Kross initiated psychiatric and guidance programs to support suffering families and pushed for dynamic reform to the bail system. Serving as Commissioner of Correction in NYC from 1954 to 1966, Kross was responsible for the installation of new showers, mess halls, a separate adolescent facility, and rehabilitative unit that included social casework, psychotherapeutic treatment, constructive recreational activities, academic education, vocational training, guidance, and aftercare.[65]In the years that followed Kross’ departure, however, the rise in Rikers’ population and concurrent City budget problems all but eliminated her reforms.

Following World War II, the population at Rikers grew steadily, before exploding during the 1960s, when the population began to rise ten percent, annually.[66] During John Lindsay’s Mayoral administration, the City acknowledged the growing logistical challenges at Rikers by building a bridge connecting it to the City’s mainland in 1966.[67] Today, that same bridge is in need of $1 billion in repairs in order to remain viable.

By the early 1970s, a “heroin epidemic” broke out in New York City,[68] and Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s response marked the beginning of New York’s War on Drugs.[69]  In 1973, Rockefeller, instituted mandatory minimum sentences of 15 years to life for the possession of four ounces of narcotics – about the same sentence as that for second-degree murder.[70] The Rockefeller Drug Laws led to an increase in drug convictions and an expansion of the population at Rikers, without a commensurate decrease in crime.97,[71] In his 2009 State of the State address, New York Governor David Paterson said, “I can’t think of a criminal justice strategy that has been more unsuccessful than the Rockefeller Drug Laws.” [72] In 1930, eighty-five percent of the city’s incarcerated population was white; the War on Drugs marked the point at which racial minorities became disproportionately represented in the city’s criminal justice system. [73][74] By the 1970s, only thirty-five percent of Rikers detainees were white.[75] By 2010, that figure had plummeted to a mere seven percent.[76]

At the onset of New York’s War on Drugs, Rikers witnessed a considerable uptick in racial violence.[77] In 1969, black detainees were beaten after being intentionally moved to a Rikers facility controlled by white detainees.[78] In that same year, more than forty adolescent detainees and five corrections officers were attacked and injured in another racially-tinged brawl.[79] The culture of violence at Rikers also led to a spike in suicide attempts on the island.[80]

As more New Yorkers, especially those of color, were being locked away at Rikers, the City was concurrently teetering on the precipice of bankruptcy and diverting funds away from its jails.[81] Monetary neglect exacerbated the city jails’ poor conditions, resulting in a slew of class-action lawsuits filed on behalf of detainees in the 1970s. [82]

During the same year, at the borough based, Manhattan House of Detention for Men, also known as “The Tombs”, detainees took five correctional officers hostage.[83] After 17 hours of negotiations, the corrections officers were released unharmed on the condition that the city address overcrowding and visitation issues.[84] Yet, several years later, little had been done, leading to a series of lawsuits.[85] In 1974, a judge deemed the Tombs uninhabitable. Rather than making improvements suggested by the court, the City simply shut the Tombs down. [86][87] The Tombs’ pretrial detainees were then transferred to Rikers, a move that John Boston, the former Director of The Legal Aid Society’s Prisoners’ Rights Project, called a “major transition in the history of Rikers.” Before the 1970s, almost all pre-trial detainees were held in borough facilities.[88] After the 1974 lawsuit, however, the city increasingly began to house its pretrial population on Rikers.[89]

In 1975, the Legal Aid Society of New York filed a second case on behalf of Rikers detainees at the Manhattan House of Detention for Men, citing decrepit conditions, lack of sanitation, and visitation problems.[90] During the mid-1970s, the city was repeatedly sued over conditions in detention facilities both on Rikers Island and within the boroughs- highlighting the degree of inhumanity with which incarcerated New Yorkers were being treated.[91]

When Ed Koch took mayoral office in 1978, he was determined to put an end to the existing lawsuits while preventing further suits from arising.[92] He called on Allen Swartz, a member of his new Corporation Counsel, to settle all remaining litigation.[93]  The Swartz settlements, which began in 1978, resulted in partial judgments by consent that covered thirty-one areas, from environmental health to punitive segregation.[94] While the decrees led to a significant increase in DOC funding, compliance did not follow and litigation against Rikers continued well into the Koch era.[95]

In an effort to further burnish his progressive image, Koch appointed reformer Herb Sturz as deputy mayor.[96]  While Sturz was known for his efforts to modernize bail systems and enhance reentry programs, his landmark criminal justice initiative was his recommendation to sell Rikers Island to the State of New York. In light of the jail’s horrific conditions and inconvenient location, he called for the city to decentralize its main jail complex and to create smaller detention facilities near borough courthouses. Sturz estimated that the City’s cost for the initiative would roughly equal the expense of complying with the consent decree standards. While Koch and Governor Hugh Casey agreed to Sturz’s proposal in 1979, in the face of his re-election campaign, Koch defaulted on his promise. According to Sturz, Koch was concerned that tax-payers did not want their money to go towards supporting “bad people.” Furthermore, the Correction Officers Benevolent Association (COBA) publically decried Sturz’s reform efforts, contending that Sturz’s conveniently-located borough jails were escape-prone, “experimental”, and “posh.”[97] After Koch rejected the plan, the ‘crack epidemic’ found its way to New York City, exacerbating the conditions that Sturz sought to address.[98] The city’s five district attorneys increased their indictment rate by roughly 75% between 1978 and 1983, in turn tripling the population at Rikers, a surge that was disproportionately felt by communities of color.[99]

Overcrowding in the City’s jails received significant media attention in 1983 when Judge Morris E. Lasker of the Federal District Court in Manhattan ordered the city to reduce the number of pretrial detainees held on Rikers. In order to comply with the judge’s orders, the City was forced to release detainees from detention facilities, creating an uproar amongst in the tabloids.[100] The negative reaction to the 1983 detainee releases led to a wave of physical expansion of detention facilities, especially on Rikers, as a means to preclude further releases.[101]  Temporary modular housing units were built on Rikers Island and then used far beyond their expiration date, posing serious fire security risks.[102] Old navy brigs were purchased for use as detention facilities and shipped from as far away as New Orleans.[103] According to Legal Aid’s John Boston, these barges were “entirely unsuited to run a modern pretrial detention institution.”[104] Conveniently, the barges were not subject to the City’s convoluted Uniform Land Use Review Process (ULURP), one reason that the Vernon C. Bain Center, located off of the coast of the South Bronx, remains in use today.

To avoid the issues created by overcrowding, corrections officers forged “gentlemen’s agreements” with gang leaders to maintain order in the facilities on Rikers. In 1981, the President of the Corrections Officers’ Benevolent Association (COBA), Phil Seelig, admitted that “everyone is conspiring to keep the lid on, and we’re paying the price.”

Another effort to stymie violence was the 1988 creation of the Central Punitive Segregation Unit. Commonly referred to as “The Bing”, this unit served as a maximum security quarantine unit for the jail’s ‘most violent’ detainees. According to Jennifer Wynn in her book Inside Rikers: Stories from the World’s Largest Penal Colony, a CO captain offered that The Bing did little to ensure stability, claiming instead that it was a “jungle ruled by [detainees].”[105]

The futility of “gentlemen’s agreements” and The Bing as means to control the overcrowded population was the basis of an infamous correction officer protest in 1993. While frustrations among COs had been mounting for years, the attack and robbery of corrections officer Steve Narby at the hands of three detainees precipitated the CO protest. In an act of defiance, 200 Rikers Island corrections officers blockaded the only bridge that led to the island. [106] The blockade prevented hundreds of detainees from making court appearances and thousands of workers from returning home. When the COs prevented even ambulances from entering the island, the demonstration turned violent, resulting in injuries to three COs, seven ambulance workers, and dozens of detainees. Two days into the blockade, detainee protests spread across a number of facilities, leading to 47 additional injuries.[107]  After guards used tear gas to suppress the protests, city officials and union leaders finally negotiated a peaceful resolution to the extended blockade.

One of these 200 revolting COs was a young man named Norman Seabrook. Two years later, in 1995, Seabrook would be elected president of the corrections officer’s union, COBA, and would transform this once unsubstantial union into a potent political force.

In the wake of the Rikers Island blockade fiasco and other racialized controversies across the city, former U.S. Attorney Rudy Giuliani, was elected as NYC Mayor on a platform of law and order.[108] Once in office, the new mayor appointed Bill Bratton as the Commissioner of the New York City Police Department.[109] Bratton is perhaps best known for instituting “broken windows” policing, the theory that low-level urban disorder generates and sustains more serious and often violent crime.[110] When implemented, this policing approach leads to more frequent and aggressive contacts between police and community.  During Giuliani’s tenure, crime did indeed drop in New York City but also around the country for a variety of reasons.[111] The assertion that this reduction in crime is the result of broken windows policing remains widely disputed.[112]

Vice journalist John Surico found that, “in numerous interviews, most subjects agreed: the 1990s was, by far, the worst time to be on Rikers Island.”[113] During this time, gangs such as the Bloods and Latin Kings first emerged at Rikers.[114] Mary Buser, who worked on Rikers as a social worker during the ‘90s explained that incarcerated individuals would join gangs for fear that they would otherwise be killed.[115] “Invariably these people would come back crying, saying I don’t want to be in a gang,” she explained.[116]  However, there was no amnesty process by which individuals could renounce their gang membership and be transferred to a safe facility.[117] When Buser proposed reform to allow individuals to leave gangs, thereby reducing gang presence, she was turned away.[118]      “I became very disillusioned and discouraged that the DOC wasn’t open to anything constructive,” Buser lamented.[119]

Glenn E. Martin, the founder and president of JustLeadershipUSA, spent time as a Rikers detainee during the 1990s. Martin explains that gang affiliation was often first determined upon an individual’s arrive at Rikers, and would then continue if and when they were transferred to upstate prisons. Therefore, the first step towards ameliorating gang violence at prisons statewide should have been to address it at the jail level.[120]

According to Buser, the 1990s were turbulent not only due to the emergence of gangs, but also because of extreme overcrowding.[121] In the early ‘90s, [Rikers] reached 24,000 daily occupancy, earning the title as the single most occupied jail in the nation.[122]  To deal with overcrowding, a jail barge was docked near the East River and makeshift jail tents known as “sprungs” popped up all over Rikers Island.[123] When the barges and sprungs were at full capacity, COs would send detainees to solitary confinement as a strategy to free up beds for the general population.[124]

In order to manage violence, borne in part from overcrowding, DOC Commissioners like Bernard Kerik (who was later convicted of corruption) along with COBA president Norman Seabrook (recently arrested for corruption charges) followed Mayor Giuliani’s “tough-on-crime” lead by employing aggressive tactics to prevent violence perpetrated by detainees. [125][126] A data system resembling the NYPD’s “CompStat” was created to more efficiently and objectively identify ‘trouble regions’.[127] The number of COs increased from 8,200 to over 10,000, and officers were equipped with new weapons such as pepper spray, mace, and shields.[128] A SWAT team, armed with clubs and electrified stun shields, also joined the ranks of the jail complex staff.[129] Seabrook claimed that the new equipment allowed officers to do “things the way they’re supposed to be done.”[130] According to Martin, this new gear included masks that allowed COs to conceal their identity, thereby reducing CO accountability for the increasingly brutal officer-on-detainee violence.[131]

As part of this effort to clamp down on violence, COs began conducting random raids at inhumane hours. Buser explained that these “searches were brutal…some just cause[d] real terror in [detainees].”[132]  She furthered explained that she would “see glimpses of beat downs,” that the DOC would swiftly and effectively cover up from the public eye.[133] Despite the increased intensity of Rikers security, slashings rose 1000% from 1994 to 1999.[134]Buser suggests that the culture of violence served neither the detainees nor the correction officers:

“The reduction [in violence] could have been done differently. It didn’t have to be done in a way that terrorized and traumatized people…It was open season on the inmates. There was no incentivizing good behavior.”[135]

According to Jonathan Chasan, an attorney for the Legal Aid Society, “whenever you impose a system of restraint on this scale, it can be easily abused.”[136]  Still, Seabrook celebrated these aggressive tactics and the swelling might of his officers.[137]

Meanwhile, Norman Seabrook expanded the purview of his union, not only by riding the wave of Giuliani’s tough-on-crime era, but also through his unique political finesse–which far outlived the Giuliani years.[138] As president of COBA, Seabrook tirelessly cultivated personal relationships with high-profile politicians such as former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Governor George Pataki, while donating millions of dollars to political campaigns.[139][140] Through these tactics, Seabrook achieved significant benefits for COBA members.[141] But according to the New York Times:

Current and former city officials repeatedly described Mr. Seabrook as the biggest obstacle to curb brutality and malfeasance at Rikers. He has vigorously resisted stiffer penalties for the use of excessive force by guards and has fought stronger screening measures designed to stop correction officers from smuggling weapons and drugs into the jails.[142]

As corrections officers, under Seabrook’s leadership, were achieving newfound benefits, disenfranchised detainees at Rikers watched with distress as Giuliani cut spending on healthcare at the jail.[143]  For years, Montefiore Medical Center had managed healthcare on Rikers Island.[144] In 1998, Giuliani sold the contract to St. Barnabas at a rate that saved the City $7.4 million a year. Under the Montefiore contract, the City was required to pay each time a Rikers detainee was sent to an offsite, city hospital. Under the new system, St. Barnabas was given a lump sum for providing all medical care. This meant that the hospital, rather than the City, was required to pay for each detainee hospital visit, and retain remaining funds, creating a perverse incentive to reduce the number of visits, and decrease level of care.

Critics of the new hospital contract argued that St. Barnabas was financially dis-incentivized from providing adequate care for detainees, especially to those in need of hospital treatment. In the immediate wake of the switch to St. Barnabas’s managed care, medical complaints at Rikers rose by over 400 percent, leading to a slew of investigations. According to Mary Buser, St. Barnabas was “motivated by profit with absolutely no experience in correctional health care, a very unique type of medical care.”[145] Numerous lawsuits were filed on behalf of detainees who lost limbs, and even their lives, under St. Barnabas management.

Following two Board of Correction investigations, Mayor Giuliani surrendered to critics’ demands, and terminated the St. Barnabas contract in 2000. At that time, the City discovered that St. Barnabas had failed to achieve 13 of the 35 performance standards stipulated in their initial contract.[146] The new Rikers contract went to the Prison Health Services of Nashville, later known as Corizon.[147] According to Buser, while Corizon had significantly more experience managing prison care than did their predecessors, they used their expertise to cut care in more clever ways that were less likely to be noticed.[148]

Mayor Michael Bloomberg preserved the ‘tough-on-crime’ legacy of his predecessor, most notably through the emergence stop-and-frisk policing, which has since been deemed an unconstitutional form of racial profiling.[149]According to the New York Civil Liberties Union, 87% of those stopped and frisked in 2012 were black or Latino, despite the fact that they constitute only half of the city’s overall population. Although Bloomberg’s policies exacerbated racial inequities, they occurred amidst an ever-decreasing crime rate, which helped to reduce the daily occupancy at Rikers Island to less than 12,000 detainees by the end of Bloomberg’s third term.[150]

In contrast to his focus on law enforcement, Bloomberg never made reform at Rikers a priority.[151] According to Martin Horn, the DOC Commissioner during Bloomberg’s first two terms, “there was very little interest in expending political capital and financial capital on the jails.”[152] Bloomberg cut more than 3,000 corrections positions. When Bloomberg proposed additional staffing cuts in 2008, then Commissioner Horn drafted a letter to the budget office warning that further cuts would be “impossible without compromising the safety of everybody in the jails.”[153] A notable number of these staffing cuts were to corrections officers responsible for escorting detainees to mental health services.[154] As a result, the number of detainees suffering from mental health issues who were then placed in solitary confinement increased.

Despite a disengaged Mayor, Horn forged ahead with a plan to close the Rikers Island jails and replace them with modern facilities in the Bronx.[155] For Horn, Rikers was beyond reform, in part because “human waste bubbled into cells, overheated buildings put [detainees] and officers on edge; gang members broke off pieces of the radiators and sharpened them into weapons.” Unfortunately, pushback from community groups that did not want to see jails sited in their neighborhoods put an end to Horn’s vision.[156]

Following Horn’s departure, the Department of Correction found that officer-on-detainee assaults increased ninety percent during Bloomberg’s final term.[157] The spike in violence at Rikers came into the public eye. In 2009, the Village Voice revealed a CO-run “Fight Club” at the Robert N. Davoren Complex at Rikers.[158] The extortion scheme, comprised of a five-tier hierarchy, “resembled something out of the world of organized crime.”[159] The Voice also uncovered that Carolyn Thomas and Patrick Walsh, respectively the second and third highest-ranking officials at the city’s Correction Department, were briefed on the spike in gang violence but did nothing to prevent the rise of the so-called “Fight Club”.[160] New York City’s Department of Investigations Commissioner Rose Gill Hearn called it “the worst” scandal she had ever witnessed in city jails.[161]

Throughout Mayor Bloomberg’s tenure, Seabrook cemented and expanded his union’s authority.[162] By 2013, when Rikers detasinee, Dapree Peterson, was scheduled to testify against two supposedly violent COs, Seabrook shut down all city buses used to transport detainees to their scheduled court appearances.[163] Hundreds of detainees, including Peterson, missed court appearances that day.[164] Bloomberg sued the union leader for denying “dozens of [detainees] the fundamental right to swift justice,” but Seabrook escaped the suit unscathed.[165]

Seabrook’s good fortune ended on the morning of June 8, 2016, when he was arrested on charges of accepting a $60,000 bribe in exchange for investing $20 million dollars of COBA funds into a risky hedge fund. [166][167] He has since been removed from his long-held post as union chief.[168] According to the Observer, elected officials who were formerly tied to Seabrook are now “eager to distance themselves” from COBA’s former president.[169]

Despite recent developments, the Rikers Island jails continue to exist in a state of unrelenting dysfunction.[170] In 2014, United States attorney, Preet Bharara, released a Justice Department report detailing the “deep-seated culture of violence” that prevails at Rikers.[171] The report demonstrated Rikers’ systematic deficiencies, including inadequate staff discipline, which perpetuate the island’s culture of violence. [172]

In response to the report, DOC Commissioner Joseph Ponte declared that, “the excessive use of force, unnecessary and unwarranted use of punitive segregation and corruption of any kind are absolutely unacceptable and will not be tolerated under my watch.”[173] During his tenure, Commissioner Ponte has sought reforms such as CO training protocols, a modernized use-of-force policy, and new facility cameras.[174] Ponte’s most significant reform efforts to end solitary confinement for young people, has been questioned by the Board of Correction and advocates for missing deadlines and creating a parallel system that results in prolonged isolation. [175] During the summer of 2016, in response to community and stakeholder pressure, Mayor de Blasio announced that adolescents would be moved off of Rikers over the course of four years. While this commitment represents the important acknowledgement that young people have no place on Rikers Island, advocates await concrete actions to move forward.

The myriad issues that plague Rikers Island are not new, nor are they easy to fix. The Island’s culture of violence, corruption and abuse is rooted in a dark history that stretches back from Richard Riker’s “kidnapping club,” on through generations of failed reforms. For decades, the notorious Rikers Island Jail Complex has been marked by violence and corruption and impervious to substantive reform. The #CLOSErikers campaign was formed in 2016 to break the political gridlock and achieve real solutions that are guided by directly impacted communities. The campaign to #CLOSErikers is calling for New Yorkers to boldly reimagine the city’s failed criminal justice system and become a national leader in ending mass incarceration. In 2017, a high-level commission brought by City Speaker Mark-Viverito and led by Judge Johnathan Lippman, will issue a report assessing alternative possibilities for the island, and solutions for achieving a transformed criminal justice system and a more just New York City. These community led initiatives and bold solutions for public safety, present the opportunity for the City to support and invest in all New Yorkers—to close Rikers Island, and begin to heal from the decades of pain that it has caused.

#CLOSErikers Campaign

#CLOSErikers launched in April 2016 on the steps of New York City Hall. The campaign, which is a coalition of more than 170 organizations across New York City, demanded that Mayor Bill de Blasio close New York City’s “Torture Island” while supporting the healing and rebuilding of the communities most impacted by Rikers and the city’s failed criminal justice system. A year later, Mayor de Blasio, an independent commission, and a growing number of New Yorkers began calling for Rikers Island to be closed.

While continuing to work to see all of the jails on Rikers Island closed, the campaign is also organizing to  ensure that the system that replaces them incarcerates far less people, treats people humanely and with the presumption of innocence, and invests in other – more preventative – solutions to social challenges. The campaign is working with communities who’ve been directly impacted by Rikers Island to build a vision for how money divested from incarceration should be invested in our communities.

To learn more about the campaign and the case for closing Rikers, visit the #CLOSErikers website.

Advisory Committee

The Rikers Public Memory Project is overseen by an advisory group comprised of those most affected and those strategically positioned to create change.

Project Partners

Freedom Agenda is a member-led project, dedicated to organizing people and communities directly impacted by incarceration to achieve decarceration and system transformation. https://fa.urbanjustice.org/ 

Create Forward is a social impact firm harnessing the power of storytelling and design to deliver experiences that advance equity and justice. Our signature initiative is Mass Story Lab, a participatory storytelling process making the narratives of people directly impacted by mass incarceration an instrument of justice.
To learn more about our work visit www.create-forward.com

The Humanities Action Lab (HAL) is a coalition of universities, issue organizations, and public spaces in 36 cities, and growing, that collaborate to produce community-curated public humanities projects on urgent social issues. Students and stakeholders in each city develop local chapters of national traveling exhibits, web projects, public programs, and other platforms for civic engagement, all made possible by our visionary supporters. Projects travel nationally and internationally to museums, public libraries, cultural centers, and other spaces in each of the communities that helped create them. We always welcome new institutions to join our projects, so please get involved, or reach out if you have any questions. www.humanitiesactionlab.org